Ann Patchett's 'State of Wonder': searching for answers in the Amazon
Ann Patchett's novel "State of Wonder" tells the story of a medical researcher deployed to the Amazon by a pharmaceutical company to locate a rogue scientist. Patchett appears Thursday at Town Hall Seattle as part of the Seattle Arts & Lectures series.
Special to The Seattle Times
Ann PatchettThe author of "State of Wonder" will appear at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Town Hall Seattle, 1119 Eighth Ave., as part of the Seattle Arts & Lectures series. Tickets are $15-$30; for more information call 206-621-2230 or go to www.lectures.org.
'State of Wonder'
by Ann Patchett
Harper, 353 pp., $26.99
The trouble with writing one critically acclaimed novel is that it breeds high expectations for the next. But, as any writer can tell you, the literary life seldom progresses to the tune of good, better, best.
Ann Patchett's latest fiction, "State of Wonder," is a case in point. Unlike her prizewinning best-seller, "Bel Canto," which told the tale of terrorists taking over an elegant birthday bash, this new novel lacks the imaginative reach and nuanced touch of that remarkable book. "State of Wonder" seems more blatantly commercial and less interesting, with characters drawn from central casting and the ending in clear sight from the start.
What saves the book from the ordinary is Patchett's sensitivity to language. In an increasingly inarticulate world, she is an unrepentant wordsmith, terrific at setting scenes and playing with metaphorical images. If God dwells in the details, so does "State of Wonder."
Thus, early in the novel, we see Marina Singh, an uptight medical researcher from the Midwest, arriving at her own heart of darkness:
"The minute she stepped into the musty wind of the tropical air conditioning, Marina smelled her own wooliness. She pulled off her light spring coat and then the zippered cardigan beneath it, stuffing them into her carry-on where they did not begin to fit, while every insect in the Amazon lifted its head from the leaf it was masticating and turned a slender antenna in her direction. She was a snack plate, a buffet line, a woman dressed for springtime in the North."
Innocent abroad? Well, yes and no. Marina has been deployed to the Amazon by the pharmaceutical company for which she works — and, not incidentally, by the boss with whom she's romantically entangled. It tells us something about their relationship when her lover gives her a risky assignment and she acquiesces to it.
The stated purpose of her trip is to locate a formidable woman scientist employed by the same company who has gone rogue in her fieldwork. But the subtexts are more compelling: For one, Marina wants to absolve the guilt she feels about a colleague who was sent on the same mission and never returned. For another, she needs to confront not only the scientist but also a lingering wound that the other woman helped create.
Marina is that familiar blend of high achiever and basket case, whose accomplishments take second seat to her sense of failure. Raised by her mother after her foreign-student father returned to India, she trained to become an obstetrician but quit the field after she maimed a newborn during an emergency C-section. The trauma of that mistake sent Marina racing away from patient care and into a medical lab.
Her mentor and supervisor at that time was Dr. Annick Swenson, who just happens to be the ethnobotanist now working deep in the jungle. There she claims to have found a drug that allows women to extend their childbearing years indefinitely.
Swenson is another familiar type — a bully, the kind with a razor-sharp intelligence that she has used in both academia and the wild. As expected, the story's outcome rests on whether this time Marina can stand up to her.
Worth noting in this power play is how the realm of reproduction, "the lynchpin for the survival of the species," serves as the backdrop. Having forsaken obstetrics, Marina is childless, both personally and professionally. The problem of fertility is cast as both a major medical issue and a potential commercial bonanza.
The jungle setting further reinforces a sense of the cruel, impersonal drive of nature, economics and the human condition.
Ellen Emry Heltzel is a Portland writer and co-author of "Between the Covers: The Book Babes' Guide to a Woman's Reading Pleasures."
Trending on seattletimes.com
Most viewed photo galleries
The Morning Memo
The Morning Memo jump starts your day with weather, traffic and news
Autos news and research